To fully understand the question, it’s necessary to look at the purpose of office screens, and discuss why they were first used and what the pros and cons of using them are. Only then can we answer whether they inhibit or increase productivity.
What Offices Were Like Before Office Dividing Screens
Advances in technology meant that buildings could be constructed without the need for load bearing internal walls and open plan offices were born.
The rise of open plan offices was due to two primary reasons.
First, at the end of the 19th century, workplace theorist Frederick Taylor helped spread the growth of large, open plan offices in his pursuit of streamlining the office world by mimicking the set up of manual labour production lines. Staff no longer had to be confined to individual or low occupancy rooms for structural reasons, so it made sense to have big teams of accountable employees, overseen by low numbers of senior managers.
Second, and this is a big reason Taylorist offices gained popularity, is that large open plan offices were also cost effective to establish and could be altered later (if staff numbers changed, for example, you could just bring more desks).
Office Dividing Screens Were Introduced…
But by the mid-1900s, office screens exploded in popularity for various reasons. For a start, the culture at the time saw screens as a means of affording privacy and modesty to the newly-present women in the office. Screens were put on the outside of desks – though why they didn’t just change dress codes to allow women to wear trousers instead of skirts, we’ll never understand.
Then, a rise in office worker numbers – due to a decline in manufacturing industries and there just being a higher number of working age people, generally – meant that the “mid-level” manager was born. Someone who was not on the bottom rung of the career ladder, but too senior to be part of the open plan masses.
So the start of what we know as the cubicle was born. It used office screens to afford privacy to the incumbent.
How Office Screens Increase Productivity
But the benefits of office screens in this sense apply to all who use them in an open plan office. The benefits of office screens and how they increase productivity are:
- They offer privacy to allow staff to work and think freely, away from prying eyes.
- They deflect and absorb surrounding noise, which can be very disruptive in a large open plan office.
- They allow confidential material to be worked on without worry of being compromised.
- They create a personalised space which gives the employee a sense of ownership of their workplace. This, in turn, breeds pride and helps morale.
- They remove visual distractions.
How Office Screens Inhibit Productivity
Though, of course, it isn’t all so simple. There is also a flip side to all the positives of office screens. They can also be blamed for reducing productivity in certain circumstances. Here’s some examples of how office screens inhibit productivity;
- They let unscrupulous staff work less productively without being observed by colleagues or managers. Time is spent less productively.
- They can disrupt and stifle ad hoc discussion and sharing of ideas, for which there are no barriers in fully open plan. This slows down production levels.
- The smaller the space that employees work in, inside the screens, the more limiting it can feel. A feeling of being “boxed in” can develop, which limits creativity and freedom, and this harms productivity and performance.
- The notorious cubicle farm offices of the 1980s and 1990s show how easy it is for office screens to create a soul destroying place of work. Loneliness and low morale make for very low levels of productivity.
How To Choose Whether To Use Office Screens
If you are still unsure about whether or not your workplace needs office screens, you could ask yourselves these questions in relation to your own office and employees.
What kind of office screens are you thinking of using? Because there’s plenty of choice. From low height dividing partitions on the edge of a desk, to half or full height dividing partitions to create distinct areas in the office.
How will office screens be distributed? Will each and every employee have their desk screened off from the rest of the office? Or will clusters of employees in teams? Or will one desk in to just receive a dividing screen?
How will staff react to office screens? Will your managers be able to trust their teams to keep working productively? Or will managers need to check that their team members are on task throughout the day, and will this undermine trust and make for an unhappy workforce?
Are office screens going to solve the productivity problem? Because the issues might go deeper than your office being open plan and staff being distracted. The order and layout of the office may be able to be improved. The heating or lighting might not be optimised. Furniture may be unsuitable or outdated.
See What Else Can Be Done To Increase Productivity
If you want to look further into what could be done to increase productivity, why not get some inspiration and advice on what to offer your staff and make sure they’re as productive as possible?